Bill Russell is an NBA legend. His legacy is built on a foundation of winning 11 championships in 13 playing seasons, making him the greatest winner in U.S. professional team sports history.
Over his illustrious career, Russell averaged 15.1 ppg, 22.5 rpg, and 4.3 apg. He earned five MVPs, 12 all-star team berths, and won an Olympic gold medal in 1956. If the NBA had always given them out, Russell most likely would have won at least a half dozen Finals MVP awards too.
One of the smartest players in league history, Bill Russell controlled games via defensive backboard domination. He was a master at blocking shots in a way so that either he or a teammate could grab the loose ball. Along with stopping the opposing team from scoring, this ignited the Celtics’ fast break offense.
Much of the impact Russell had on the game was psychological. When thinking about the effect on the opposition by stopping them and igniting the fast break, Russell remarked, “Yes, we did that to you. And if you come back, we'll do it again.”
With all of the accolades, the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America declared Bill Russell to be the “Greatest Player in the History of the NBA” in 1980. While most people believe that Michael Jordan has since taken the title of “Greatest of All-Time”, many still regard Bill Russell as both the second best player of all-time and the greatest center ever.
Yet, despite all of the accomplishments, Russell deserves neither of these titles. He may be the greatest winner in NBA history, but Bill Russell is also one of the league's most overrated players.
The fairest way to rank NBA players is to consider their overall game—both offensively and defensively, championships won, and the ability to play in any era and still dominate. The best players can dominate both ends of the court and win multiple championships (to prove that winning the first time wasn’t a fluke).
No one can take away Russell’s 11 rings, but are his 11 championships more impressive than Jordan’s six or Magic Johnson’s five? A closer look proves that this isn’t necessarily the case.
Russell played in an era where there were fewer NBA teams—about 10. While some may argue that each team had more concentrated talent, the level of talent does not compare to that of today’s game.
Whereas in the modern era the NBA draws a larger pool of talent from around the country and internationally because of the exorbitant salaries, this was not the case back in the 1950s and 1960s. Salaries were small—so small that many players held second jobs during the offseason to support their families.
In addition to having fewer teams, there were fewer playoff rounds and the top teams (like the Celtics) often got first round byes. Whereas Jordan and Magic had to win 15 playoff games to win a title (and often play upwards of 20 games or more), Russell played between 10 and 14 games to win each of his first eight championships.
By playing fewer postseason games, combined with shorter NBA seasons, this gave Russell a distinct advantage in durability over Jordan and Magic in accumulating wear and tear.
Russell’s teams also were stacked with future Hall of Famers and All-Stars, including John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, and Bill Sharman. The Celtics teams had far superior talent overall than any other team during his era. And despite all of this talent, Boston barely beat the Lakers in three separate finals, each in seven games.
In four game seven wins against teams led by Wilt Chamberlain, Boston won by a combined nine points. When Boston finally met up with a team that was just as talented—a 1967 Philadelphia 76ers cast that included Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham—the Celtics were unable to win.
It is also arguable that it would be impossible for a team to win eight titles in a row today. This is due to longer seasons, more travel requirements, longer playoff rounds, and rule changes that make it nearly impossible to acquire the talent disparity enjoyed by Russell’s Celtics teams.
Even though Bill Russell remains one of the greatest winners, to put his winning automatically ahead of legends like Jordan and Magic may be a naïve comparison.
At first glance, Bill Russell’s offensive stats can be seen as mediocre. He didn’t exactly dominate offensively, scoring 15.1 ppg while making 44% of his field goals and 56% of his free throws. One may make an argument that he played more of a team game and was not required to score as much with a cast of other all-stars. Yet, careful analysis of his offensive game shows a different picture.
It is difficult at best to compare different NBA eras, so let’s look at some facts. During the first eight years of Russell’s career, the foul lane in the NBA was only 12 feet wide. After the NBA widened the lane to 16 feet in 1964, Bill Russell only averaged 12.6 ppg—hardly stellar numbers.
Russell had incredible athletic ability and vertical leap, but he had an immense advantage over players of his era, who were smaller, weaker, and less athletic than players today. When Wilt Chamberlain entered the NBA in 1960, there were only four players in the league that were taller than 6-8 (including Wilt at 7-1 and Russell at 6-9).
With all of the offensive rebounds Russell grabbed, his height advantage, and his athletic superiority over opposing players, he should have been able to score more dominantly. In today’s game going against taller and stronger players on a nightly basis, he would not have held these advantages.
Lastly, let’s consider the pace of the game. During the late 1950s and 1960s, NBA teams played in a run-and-gun style offense. The early 1960s was the highest scoring environment in NBA history. In 1961-62, the average team scored 118.8 ppg, the highest in the league’s history.
Furthermore, the average team in the 1962 season had an average of 152 ball possessions. Conversely, over the past two decades in the NBA, teams have averaged about 90-100 possessions per game. Given that this difference gave players during that era 50 percent more opportunities to score, this would give Russell an adjusted scoring average of about 10 ppg in today’s game. And that’s without considering having a 16-foot foul lane and competing against taller players.
Finally, let’s ponder over Russell’s defense and how it would translate into today’s NBA game. Unfortunately, blocked shots were not recorded during Russell’s career. While Russell was a menace towards opposing teams with his blocking ability, his 6-9, 220 pound frame would likely mean he would be a power forward today.
While Russell today could have bulked up and played a similar role as Ben Wallace as an undersized but strong center, it’s hard to see other teams fearing him more than Big Ben or other top centers of the past few decades, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Dwight Howard, and Dikembe Mutombo. In addition, each of these centers had between one and four inches on Russell.
Part of the difference between the NBA in the 1960s and today is due to game strategy. With a three-point line, teams today value outside shooters and often design plays for a three-point shot. In the early decades of the league, the whole purpose of each possession was to get a shot as close to the basket as possible.
The main issue with this strategy is that centers like Russell and Chamberlain could roam the paint waiting for dozens of more shots to block and intimidate. Hence, the effect of a tall and athletic defensive center was greater over the course of a game.
Wilt Chamberlain was recorded blocking 28 shots in a single game. It is doubtful that Wilt, Russell, or any player could come anywhere close to matching similar totals today. Without considering the height disadvantage compared to Olajuwon and Mutombo, I’ll give Russell the benefit of the doubt by thinking he would have similar block totals today—about three bpg.
The other area Russell dominated defensively was on the glass with his rebounding. His 22.5 rpg average ranks second only to Wilt Chamberlain. Of the 24 forty rebound games in NBA history, Russell owns eight of them.
When the higher ball possession rate argument is factored in, one can clearly see how rebounding totals were inflated compared to today. More scoring possessions led to more rebound opportunities. In addition, teams shot below a 40 percent rate in the late 1950s and not much more efficient after that, also leading to more rebounds.
Over the past three decades, team rebounding averages have been in the low to mid 40s. By contrast, from 1956 until 1968, teams averaged between 58 and 66 rebounds per game. This alone would bring Russell’s rebound average today down by about a third, to around 15-16 rpg.
Looking at the style of game play with shorter shots being taken, most rebounds were also shorter (as long shots like three-point attempts create long rebounds). Being among the tallest and most athletic players during the era, players such as Chamberlain and Russell had an advantage in grabbing those plentiful short rebounds.
In fact, any player that had a tremendous athletic ability rebounded at an impressive clip. For example, Elgin Baylor grabbed 19.8 rpg in 1961, even though he was listed at 6-5. Even more current elite rebounders such as Charles Barkley (6-6) and Dennis Rodman (6-8) were unable to match this statistic.
Rodman, for instance, was perhaps the best ever at positioning himself for rebounds and boxing out opponents. Yet, due to other tall, athletic players and the style of the game (slower pace and longer rebounds), Rodman averaged over 18 rpg only twice. No other NBA player since has come close.
Russell was a smart, intense player. But all the films I have seen of him playing do not show him working as hard at positioning as Rodman did. In fact, Wilt Chamberlain set an NBA record by pulling down 55 boards while playing Russell and the Celtics.
Russell, in fact, never really “contained” Wilt defensively. In the 142 games they played against each other, Wilt still averaged 28.7 ppg and 28.7 rpg. Even though by an 88-74 count Russell’s team won, much of that can be attributed to the superior talent and coaching of the Celtics.
When adjusting for pace of the game and other players’ ability, Russell’s rebounding rate today might be similar to the averages of other top players—around 12-13 per game.
Bill Russell was a great winner, although he might not have won quite as much today. A dominant rebounder and defender and a strong-willed leader, Russell’s legacy on the court is long-lasting.
Using the “greatest of all-time” standard that I proposed, Russell cannot be considered in the elite because although he won multiple times and excelled at defense, he was not dominant offensively. Furthermore, if his game was translated into today (10 ppg, 12-13 rpg, and 3 bpg—numbers similar to Dikembe Mutombo’s career), overall Bill Russell would not have the same effect on the league.
I applaud Russell for changing the way the game was played and overcoming much adversity throughout his career, including racism. However, in comparison to other NBA legends, I could not fairly crown him as the second best player behind Jordan and the best NBA center.